- www.counterpunch.org - https://www.counterpunch.org -

Go Ask Alice: the Curious Case of “Alice Donovan”

Alice Donovan’s Twitter profile image.

Like most back alleys of RussiaGate, the tracks of this story are murky. Murky in a Kafkaesque kind of way. Nothing is entirely clear. Nothing seems quite definitive. Conjecture builds on conjecture and still doesn’t add up to something entirely whole.

A young writer sends off some of her first stories to a variety of online news sites. She tries a few times and then gets a bite. Her byline appears on several outlets. But one of her very first submissions is somehow snagged by an intelligence agency, perhaps the NSA, and kicked over to the FBI. Someone is monitoring her email traffic. She is suspected of posing behind a false identity, operating as a troll for Russia, at a time when Russia is politically toxic. She isn’t informed of this surveillance or the suspicions about her. Neither are any of the writers or editors that she may be communicating with. None of her stories focus specifically on Russia. When they do mention Russia, it’s largely in the context of the Syrian war. Some are critical of Hillary Clinton. Others are critical of Donald Trump. Mostly the stories are about policy, not politics. None are especially earth-shaking. They are read, but not widely disseminated.

Let’s say the writer had a “pro-Russian” bias. Does this matter? Every writer carries some kind of bias. Some big-time columnists and policy wonks have written with a bias toward torture and preemptive nuclear strikes. This writer’s pieces don’t advocate hostilities with the US. Indeed, quite the opposite. If anything the stories show a bias against war and for peace, a bias which may be enough to raise suspicions in this attenuated environment.

But what about the question of identity? Is the writer really who she says she is? Does she have a hidden agenda? If so, what is she hiding? Does it invalidate what she says? Why?

Have we entered a time when to be published, writers must prove their identity to their publishers and readers as if they were passing through the TSA checkpoint in an airport? Recall that in penning the Federalist Papers, so crucial to the shaping of the US Constitution, Hamilton, Jay and Madison all cloaked themselves behind the pseudonym of “Publius.” How much does identity really matter? What happens if the news is true, but the writer is a fake?

And, finally, what happens when everything you thought you knew about a writer and her work on closer inspection melts away like a desert mirage?

These are the questions that we’ve been grappling with during the search for one of our own occasional contributors, a writer who went by the name of Alice Donovan.

***

We received a call on Thursday morning, November 30, from Adam Entous, a national security reporter at the Washington Post. Entous said that he had a weird question to ask about one of our contributors. What did we know about Alice Donovan? It was indeed an odd question. The name was only faintly familiar. Entous said that he was asking because he’d been leaked an FBI document alleging that “Alice Donovan” was a fictitious identity with some relationship to Russia. He described the FBI document as stating that “Donovan” began pitching stories to websites in early 2016. The document cites an article titled “Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow.”

The first question we asked ourselves was: “Who the hell is Alice Donovan?” And the next: “Why is the FBI spying on American journalists?” We spent the next three weeks hunting for answers. With each answer we found, new questions arose.

We quickly searched the CounterPunch archives and found that we had indeed published the cyberwarfare piece on April 29, 2016. Other than the striking allegations about the author, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about the cyberwarfare story, which focuses on the ransomware hacking of medical databases. The article even extensively quotes a Washington Post interview with an  FBI cybercrime investigator named Chris Stangl. We later learned that the cyberwarfare article had been published originally by Veterans Today. A few months later the same piece appeared in truncated form on MintPressNews.

In total, we published five articles by Donovan over a period of 18 months. Only the cyberwarfare piece ran in 2016. After that, we didn’t run another Donovan piece for nearly a year. We published “Escalation in Syria,” a fairly straightforward commentary on the implications of Trump’s cruise missile raid on the Shayrat airbase, on April 10, 2017, three days after the attacks. The 340-word story briefly describes the defensive measures the Russian military were taking as an immediate response to the attacks.

On May 19, we ran another slightly more provocative (and, ultimately, problematic) commentary from Donovan titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike on Assad’s Forces in Syria was Not Accidental.” This 435-word piece reported on the coalition’s airstrikes against pro-government militias near the border town of At-Tanf and described the Syria government’s view that the raids were meant to slow the Syrian regime’s recapture of territory held by US-supported rebel forces.

Five days later, we ran a brief commentary titled “US Coalition Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria,” which summarized an Agence-France Press story detailing civilian casualties in the Syrian war. It wasn’t until October 16 that we ran our next and last piece from Donovan titled “Civil War in Venezuela: US Joint Operation With Colombia?”, a story about efforts to topple the Maduro government which had already appeared on several other websites.

None of these submissions were commissioned and she wasn’t compensated for any of the stories. (In the end, there would have been no address to mail the check to if we had paid her.)  They all arrived by email from one of Donovan’s two email accounts. All of the subject lines read simply: “Submission.” Each contained a short note asking if we might be interested in publishing it.  There was nothing irregular about the articles or the emails themselves. They pretty much followed the standard submission guidelines posted on the CounterPunch website. Over the course of 2016, Donovan sent us a total of seven or eight submissions, coming at a pace of about one per month. We declined to publish all but the Cyberwarfare article in 2016. In 2017, we received another four or five more submissions.

Donovan’s first email submission to CounterPunch arrived in our inbox on February 28, 2016 at 3:26 in the morning. She introduced herself as “a beginner freelance journalist.” The story she pitched, titled “Does America Need Such Friends,” was a caustic critique of Turkey under Erdogan that would not have pleased his lobbyist Michael Flynn. We passed on the story. What we didn’t know at the time was that this article, like the Cyberwarfare story, had been already published at the cranky conspiracy site Veterans Today, which once denounced Wikileaks and Julian Assange as shills for … Israel’s Mossad.

In sum, we published five stories by Donovan. One was apolitical. Four could be considered critiques of US foreign policy during the Trump administration. None mentioned Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, the 2016 elections, Wikileaks or Julian Assange.

Based solely on what we’d just reviewed was there any reason at the time to suspect that Alice Donovan was anything other than what she appeared to be: an occasional contributor of topical stories? Not as far as we could tell. The stories weren’t pro-Russian polemics and they didn’t read like awkward Google-translations of the Russian language. The most controversial thing that could be said about them was that some stories attempted to present a particular Syrian view of the war, a perspective rarely heard in the US media.

Surely we could get the answer from Donovan herself.  We wanted to talk to her, hear her voice, ask her questions, get her reaction to the allegations made in the FBI document. Anything to prove that one of our contributors wasn’t a phantom. Or worse. So we emailed Donovan a couple of hours after speaking with Entous and urged her to contact us as soon as possible. We told her that questions had been raised about her stories and her identity by the FBI and the Post. A day passed with no reply. We sent a similar message to her Twitter account. Still, we heard nothing from her.

If Donovan wasn’t going to help us prove she was a corporeal being, we were going to try to do it for her. The FBI has been wildly wrong many times before, after all. For the next week, we followed her online tracks. Our search for the internet origins of the Donovan persona took us into some of the web’s darker subdivisions, regions haunted by conspiracists, hackers, identity thieves, trolls, pranksters and government operatives. Thus, there’s some sour irony in the fact that the first story we ran by Alice Donovan, the one the FBI had picked up on, was a piece on cyberwarfare.

In digging deeper into Donovan’s online presence, we found that she had been published on many other sites, across a political spectrum that runs from right to left: The Duran, Ground Report, GlobalResearch, MintPress News, the ActivistPost, Veterans Today, Op-Ed News, Popular ResistanceRestoring Liberty and, most prolifically, on  WeAreChange, where her pieces began appearing regularly in June 2016. In total, we identified 28 unique stories under Donovan’s byline on more than a dozen websites. (See below: “Alice Donovan: a Chronological Bibliography.”)

To our knowledge, none of these media outlets had the slightest idea that Donovan may have been a façade. Only the FBI and NSA suspected that. They seemed to have been tracking Donovan’s emails from the beginning when Donovan first started pitching her stories. But they chose not to tell anyone.

We scoured the web for radio, YouTube and podcast interviews, now almost compulsory activities for cyber-age journalists. Nothing. We searched for images of her and were only able to dredge up the rather spooky photo of a woman lying down looking at a cellphone used as her Twitter profile. The obscured voyeuristic image has a Helmut Newton-quality to it. It’s not a photo likely to land you many gigs as an up-and-coming political reporter. It didn’t entice many followers, either. Donovan joined Twitter in May 2016. Twenty months later, despite the enticing photo, she had racked up only 49 followers (when this was written, more since this story and the Post’s were published, ironically), with bots making up a significant portion.

Donovan’s lightly trafficked Twitter page describes her as a “freelance writer and online journalist currently collaborating with We Are Change NYC,” who lives in New York City.  She issued her first tweet on May 12: “Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet.” Assuming this actually was Donovan’s first Twitter account, she was a pretty late arrival to the social media platform, especially for a young freelancer who doesn’t seem to be a Luddite.

None of her tweets (and there are only 28 of them) reveal anything about her life or personality. She never tweeted out links to any of her CounterPunch stories, although she did use Twitter to promote three stories she published at WeAreChange and a few crudely-made and not very funny memes attacking Hillary Clinton. In fact, she retweeted more stories by the well-known subversive NYT columnist Paul Krugman (1) than CounterPunch (0).  She did send us one message via Twitter asking if we’d received her submission on Venezuela. The page cites her date of birth as November 23. The year is not noted.

We sent someone to a protest at Ground Zero in New York, staged by We Are Change, a group Donovan had publicly claimed to be affiliated with. Nothing to see. There are at least 27 Alice Donovans in the greater NYC area. We started calling them, before quickly conceding the futility of that plan. Our mission began to feel like the world’s most absurd snipe hunt.

“Alice Donovan’s” twitter page.

Since we couldn’t seem to prove that Donovan existed in the physical world, we flipped the matter on its head. Could we prove that Alice Donovan wasn’t real? Could we prove that she was a fiction? Could we, in essence, prove a negative? That answer came more quickly: No. Donovan had a distinctive online footprint, which is one of the Washington Post’s own criteria for verifying submissions from freelancers and op-ed writers. Donovan had at least two email accounts in her name. She had that Twitter account, used a Pinterest page and had interacted in some form with at least a dozen media outlets. Her writing had been translated into French and Portuguese. At the virtual level, Alice Donovan existed as a distinct persona, although it’s one which seems to have emerged fully formed on February 25, 2016 with the publication of her first piece on Veterans Today. We couldn’t locate any traces of her before that date.

Just how maddening had our search for this ghost-like creature become? We even began to wonder about the name. Was “Donovan” a sly allusion to that old spymaster, Wild Bill? What about the time-stamps on her submissions? Was there a pattern? Could we use the timing and IP addresses of the submissions as a means to pinpoint the location of the sender? No dice. Most of the Donovan emails to us–and there were thirteen in all from February 2016 to October 2017–arrived in the morning. The earliest landed in our email server at 2:40 am PST, the latest at 1:37 pm. Most arrived between 4 and 8 am (or 7 and 11 am in New York and 3 and 7 pm in St. Petersburg). Oddly, none came at night here on the Pacific Coast. Meaning what, exactly? That writers keep strange hours? We certainly did during our quest for Alice Donovan.

As our hunt ended in a cul-de-sac, we began to ask ourselves: Did it really matter that much if we couldn’t prove “Alice Donovan” was actually Alice Donovan? We’d run anonymous writers before. Was this situation really much different? The five Donovan stories that we published weren’t very controversial. They didn’t disclose any inside information or make outlandish charges. They didn’t libel anyone. Instead, they gave our readers a broader understanding of what was going on inside Syria and Venezuela in times of war and turmoil, conflicts in which the US was deeply enmeshed.

There’s no question that Donovan’s writings gave weight to the idea that US interference in both Syria and Ukraine might spark a new and dangerous Cold War. But there’s nothing remarkable about those sentiments. It’s a perspective that is at least partially shared by many US foreign policy analysts, from Stephen Cohen to Henry Kissinger. And it’s a perspective that readers are entitled, though rarely given the opportunity, to hear. There was no reason to suspect that she was a covert mouthpiece for the Kremlin.

But, yes, the byline does matter. Writers should be who they say they are or at least let their publishers and readers know that they are not who they purport to be. They have to be accountable for the stories they write. And media organizations have to be accountable for the writers they publish. When it comes to the use of pseudonyms, we’ve gone by the Patrick Cockburn Rule. If Patrick can write under his own name as an unembedded journalist from the world’s most fraught war zones, then political commentators should be able to do the same from their desks in New York and Portland.

Not all of us have Patrick’s guts. In fact, few of us do. Which is why we’ve made some exceptions down the years.  Most notably, for an extraordinary series of articles written during the Iraq war by a writer who called himself Werther. Werther was a defense budget analyst with deep knowledge of the Pentagon and the Congress and we identified him as such. Readers knew he was writing under a pen name and could evaluate his explosive pieces with that in mind.

For decades, publishers have struggled, and frequently failed, to verify the identity of their writers, especially for submissions from freelancers and op-ed writers, but occasionally even for reporters on staff. Here’s an example from the recent history of the Washington Post itself. In 2014, the Post’s op-ed page published a piece disparaging the capital’s public transportation system. The column, which was titled “DC, You’re Depressing,” included some far-fetched anecdotes and a few gratuitous slaps at the city’s Metro riders. The piece struck a sour note with Jason Barr, a writer at the Poynter Institute, who questioned the veracity of the story and the identity of its writer, Jason Huntmann. The Post’s editors responded to the criticism by asking Huntmann to provide proof of his identity. He didn’t reply and the Post scrubbed the piece from its website. The Post had been taken for a ride. It happens, especially in the age of online journalism. Of course, the newspaper had previously been deceived by its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Janet Cooke, who invented quotes, scenarios and fictitious characters in her riveting series “Jimmy’s World,” about an eight-year-old heroin addict living in Southeast DC. During the Bush administration, the Post swallowed fictitious reports about Iraq’s WMDs from shadowy sources, who were lusting for invasion. The Post retracted both Cooke and Huntmann’s stories, but they’ve never taken down the fictive pieces on Iraq which helped destroy a nation, killed hundreds of thousands of people and sparked the rise of ISIS and a new round of war.

***

Our view of Donovan changed rather abruptly when one of our searches turned up a September 7, 2017 New York Times article by Scott Shane titled “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” This long story focused on dozens of phony Facebook accounts which the Times claims pushed pro-Russian messages during the election. Buried in the 28th paragraph of the story was the name “Alice Donovan.” Donovan’s Facebook page, the Times said, “pointed to documents from Mr. Soros’s Open Society Foundations that she said showed its pro-American tilt and — in rather formal language for Facebook — describe eventual means and plans of supporting opposition movements, groups or individuals in various countries.’” According to the Times, Facebook had deactivated the Donovan account after it failed a verification protocol.

Not a good sign, admittedly. But was there any evidence that this was our “Alice Donovan”? There are still dozens of other Alice Donovans happily posting on Facebook and our contributor had never submitted any anti-Soros stories. Our Donovan hadn’t written much about the election, as far as we knew. And we’d only published a single article by her during the election season, which was the apolitical piece on cyberwarfare. One of her pieces posted at We Are Change (“Busted: Hillary Clinton and Obama Administration Supply Weapons to ISIS”) did explore rather gleefully the implications of the Wikileaks email disclosures, but hundreds of other journalists were writing about them at the same time and often with the same excited tone.

Her Twitter account, as we’ve noted, did not show a frenzy of activity around the time of the election or at any other time, frankly. There wasn’t evidence of a social media boost for any of Donovan’s stories by the legendary Russian bot farms or anyone else. Similarly, none of her pieces were pumped up for mass consumption on Sputnik or RT. They were digested by a fairly limited audience on a few disparate websites and that was all.  Still, it began to feel more and more like we had an intruder in our midst. But what kind and to what end? Had we really been catfished by a Russian troll? Had we fallen for a fake artist?

If Donovan was sowing confusion, it was mainly in the minds of her editors.

Whatever was going on here, it was nothing to rival the CIA’s own grand manipulations of the press in the 1950s and 1960s, where it once had as many as 200 journalists and editors doing the Agency’s bidding. They called it Operation Mockingbird, an idea conceived in the early 1950s by the CIA’s Frank Wisner and his best friend, Phil Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. The Operation Mockingbird writers were two-way players. These journalists wrote CIA-approved stories and they also spied for the Agency while on assignment overseas, sharing their notes, impressions and photographs with their CIA handlers back in Langley. Some of the news organizations actually allowed CIA operatives to work as reporters in the field. The New York Times, Carl Bernstein reported in 1977, “provided cover for about 10 CIA operatives between 1950 and 1966.” Similarly, the CIA also recruited journalists to actively work for the Agency as operatives. In 1973, CIA director William Colby admitted that the agency had “some three dozen” reporters on the “agency’s payroll.” Most of these operations were conducted with the consent of the publications’ publishers and top editors, including Bill Paley at CBS, Arthur Sulzberger at the New York Times and Henry Luce at TIME.

This joint operation of espionage and propaganda extended until at least the mid-1970s and probably much longer. Under intense pressure from Langley, the final report of the Senate Church Hearings into CIA domestic spying buried their own explosive findings about the true nature of the Agency’s cozy relationship with the press. And the papers and magazines, who well knew the truth, never told their millions of readers that many of their stories through the Cold War had been secretly approved, if not written, by the CIA.

***

Where could we go from here? The only places left to search for Donovan were in the texts themselves. We wanted to take a closer look at the style of the writing to see if there were inconsistencies. We wanted to track back the names, places and quotations. We picked up a few quirks of usage, particularly the odd insertions of indefinite articles in some of the stories that wouldn’t come naturally for most native English speakers. There was also her repeated use of “USD” to stand for US dollars in one article:  “The tomahawk missiles that struck Syria in the first wave of airstrikes reportedly cost $60 million USD in total as one tomahawk missile is valued at approximately $1 million USD.”

Nothing dramatic or revealing, but just enough stylistic kinks for us to start thinking that all of Donovan’s writing hadn’t been written by the same person. The prose style of the Cyberwarfare piece, for example, is very far removed from the clunkier sentences of “Escalation in Syria.”

So we began to run Google searches of titles, quotes and text sequences from Donovan’s stories. It didn’t take long to discover that the biggest problem with Alice Donovan wasn’t the authenticity of her byline, but the source of her writing itself.

On May 19, Donovan submitted a story titled “US-led Coalition Airstrike On Assad’s Forces Was Not Accidental”. After a bit of digging we discovered that on the same day the piece was emailed to us, the story appeared verbatim on two other websites, including  Inside Syria Media Center and The International Reporter. So what’s the big deal? Well, the article published at the other two sites before Donovan’s piece went up on CounterPunch was authored by a writer named Sophie Mangal, whose bio states that she is an “investigative correspondent” and “co-editor” at Inside Syria Media Center [Editors’ note: Mangal’s articles at Inside Syria Media Center have been reattributed since the publishing of this article, but you can still find most of the original pieces here.].

Mangal isn’t completely unknown to us here at CounterPunch. She’s submitted dozens of articles over the last year, none of which we ran, largely because of the awkwardness of the prose. By all accounts, Mangal is a prolific journalist, churning out three or four (sometimes more) thinly-sourced stories per week. Her reporting generally lacks much nuance or pretense to objectivity. The roughly written stories are valuable mainly for their insights into the Syrian government’s view of the war. (Some of the Twitter posts from Inside Syria Media Center include the endearing hashtag: “We Love You Bashar.”) Nearly all of Mangal’s articles also appear on Globalresearch.ca. Since many CounterPunch readers regularly consult Global Research, Donovan’s brazen plagiarism of Mangal’s work ran a considerable risk of being noticed.

We emailed Mangal to confirm that the Syria piece we published under Donovan’s byline was actually hers and asked whether she knew Alice Donovan. “For sure, it’s my article,” Mangal promptly wrote back. “It was originally published on the website of Inside Syria Media Center. Actually, I don’t know Alice Donovan and who this person is.”

If Mangal didn’t know Donovan, Donovan certainly knew of Mangal’s work. Donovan’s April 10 story “Escalation in Syria” contains two strikingly similar paragraphs to a piece Mangal had published one day earlier on Inside Syria Media Center and Quemado Institute. This time Donovan even helpfully inserted a link to the Mangal story, even though she didn’t cite Mangal as the source or use quotation marks around borrowed words, phrases and sentences.

Here’s Mangal’s version:

According to trusted military sources of Inside Syria Media Center source [sic] in Syria, after the U.S. Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 7, Russia has taken measures to guarantee more security for its military in case the attack is repeated.

Sources also claimed that two Russian all-purpose jets capable of spotting and intercepting cruise missiles are barraging in the Eastern Mediterranean.

If any attacks on the objects, where the Russian military are located (including the Hmeimim and Tartus bases), take place, the Russians are likely to carry out retaliatory strikes on the ships that launch cruise missiles.

As our source states, Russian military advisors have been stationed at the positions of all of the Syrian antiaircraft defense systems to assist in intercepting cruise missiles.

And here is Donovan writing a day later:

According to Syrian media sources, the Russian government has taken measures to guarantee more security for its forces in case of possible attack regarding the recent U.S. Tomahawk air strikes on the Shayrat air base on April 7.

At this moment, two Russian all-purpose jets capable of spotting and intercepting cruise missiles are barraging in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the Russian forces are ready to carry out retaliatory strikes on the U.S. ships that launch cruise missiles if they attack the Russian military objects (including Khmeimim and Tartus bases).

Meanwhile, the Russian military advisors have arrived at the Syrian bases equipped with the anti-aircraft defense systems to assist Assad’s forces to counter cruise missiles strikes.

Donovan and Mangal intersected in at least one other, perhaps tangential, way. Mangal uses “MAIL.com” for her email client. So did Alice Donovan until mid-2016, when she switched to GMAIL.  While millions use MAIL.com as an email service, very few of our writers do. In fact, out of the last 3,000 submissions or so, only 4 authors have submitted via MAIL.com, that includes Donovan and Mangal. What does it mean, if anything? We don’t know, but we will be following up on this aspect of the story in a future piece.

***

So just how audacious of a journalistic pickpocket is Alice Donovan? Well, here’s some insight. On December 6, 2016 The Guardian ran a report by Shaun Walker titled “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine’: Trump’s Russia ties unnerve Kiev”. Walker’s story opens like this:

Kiev was far from the only capital city in which the ruling elite reacted with alarm to the election of Donald Trump, but the Ukrainian government has more reason than most to fear the new US administration.

The US president-elect made a number of positive comments about the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, during the campaign, and even suggested he might consider recognising Crimea, the territory annexed by Russia from Ukraine two years ago, as part of Russia. There has been talk of a “big deal” between Trump and Putin over Syria, which some have suggested could see Ukraine thrown under the bus.

“Everybody was tearing their hair and running around like crazies,” said Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, of the first days after Trump’s election victory.

Eight days later a piece by Donovan appeared in the now-defunct Ground Report, Will Trump Change America’s Policy in Ukraine?. The first three paragraphs under Donovan’s byline were lifted verbatim from Walker’s Guardian article. Then Donovan veers off for a few graphs before embedding her piece with another three unaltered paragraphs clipped from Walker’s story:

While the current US administration has stopped short of supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, it has been a strong supporter of Ukraine with financial aid, and has slapped sanctions on Russia in protest at its actions. With Trump in the White House many in Kiev fear they could be abandoned.

“It’s what everyone is talking about,” said a European diplomat based in Kiev. “It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine.” Michael McFaul, formerly the US ambassador to Russia, declared when Trump was confirmed the winner of the election that Ukraine was “the biggest loser in the world tonight”.

The US has been a strong supporter of the Ukrainian government since the 2014 revolution that ousted Yanukovych, but critics say Poroshenko is pursuing the same kind of corrupt, oligarchic politics with a democratic facade.

In another instance, Donovan stole sentences verbatim from a piece on Montenegro written by Dragan Plavsic for the British website CounterFire. Here’s Plavsic’s lede graph:

In December last year, Nato officially invited Montenegro to become the 29th member state of the most powerful military organisation of our times, if not, in fact, of all time. That the invitation will have flattered the already over-inflated ego of the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanović, and his ruling clique, there is, of course, little doubt. Nevertheless, this was flattery to deceive, for as everybody knows, Montenegro’s voice in Nato will be like a whistle in a whirlwind.

And here’s Donovan’s lede for a very “inside baseball” story, in Joan Didion’s phrase, about Montenegro’s entry into NATO written 9 months later:

In December last year, NATO officially invited Montenegro to become the 29th member state of the most powerful military organisation of our times, if not, in fact, of all time. The country’s Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, assured the NATO secretary-general that “you can count on us at any time.” It is always nice to hear that someone has your back. But in Montenegro’s case, it means that they have our back with an entire active-duty military force of only two thousand personnel. It is not quite clear how the tiny nation of less than 700,000 people enhances U.S. security in the slightest. In fact, one might argue that adding Montenegro to NATO actually detracts from U.S. security.

That the invitation will have flattered the already over-inflated ego of the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, and his ruling clique, there is, of course, little doubt. Nevertheless, this was flattery to deceive, for as everybody knows, Montenegro’s voice in NATO will be like a whistle in a whirlwind.

Plavsic’s piece, titled “NATO’s Dangerous Game in the Balkans,” was published on February 6, 2016. Donovan’s story appeared at the Canadian site Global Research under the title “U.S. Geopolitical Games In Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović” on October 26, 2016. Apparently, Donovan just couldn’t resist stealing a good lede.

But it gets even stranger. The final two graphs of the story were also plagiarized. This time from an article by Zachary Yost titled “NATO Doesn’t Need  Montenegro’s Teeny-Tiny Military” and published by The National Interest website on June 28, 2016.  Here’s Yost:

Frankly, adding Montenegro to NATO is ridiculous. New York City would be a more useful NATO member. After all, according to Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department “is the seventh largest army in the world.” With just under 35,000 officers, the NYPD is over seventeen times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces. In fact, the NYPD budget, clocking in last year at $4.8 billion, amounts to just under half of Montenegro’s GDP. Adding New York City to NATO also has the additional benefit of not worsening tensions with Russia.

Facetiousness aside, NATO expansion is no laughing matter. It is nothing personal against Montenegro, but its addition to NATO is simply irresponsible. It will not contribute to U.S. security and will serve as another point of contention with Russia. The U.S. senate should exercise its veto power over Montenegro’s invitation into the alliance when it is introduced, and in the future should put the kibosh on any more attempts at NATO expansion that don’t contribute to U.S. security.

And here is Donovan writing (well, cut-and-pasting) three months later:

Frankly, adding Montenegro to NATO is ridiculous. New York City would be a more useful NATO member. After all, according to Michael Bloomberg, the New York City Police Department “is the seventh largest army in the world.” With just under 35,000 officers, the NYPD is over seventeen times larger than the Montenegrin armed forces. In fact the NYPD budget, clocking in last year at $4.8 billion, amounts to just under half of Montenegro’s GDP. Adding New York City to NATO also has the additional benefit of not worsening tensions with Russia.

Facetiousness aside, NATO expansion is no laughing matter. It is nothing personal against Montenegro, but its addition to NATO is simply irresponsible. It will not contribute to U.S. security and will serve as another point of contention with Russia. The U.S. senate should exercise its veto power over Montenegro’s invitation into the alliance when it is introduced, and in the future should put the kibosh on any more attempts at NATO expansion that don’t contribute to U.S. security.

So, Donovan stole the opening and the closing of her piece on Montenegro. What about the rest? We located the remainder of the story (minus the appropriated opening and closing graphs) on a site called Politics Forum under the heading “A Proven Winning Approach by Dukanovic.” The story does not carry a byline and the source is cited as a page at Cgna.info. The entire site now seems to be off-line. Undoubtedly, the rest of the Donovan oeuvre is replete with similar acts of prose piracy, but these instances were more than enough for us to render our judgment.

***

Then, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get any more convoluted, we heard from … Alice Donovan.

Six days after we first wrote to her, she replied in a brief email, in which she made a revealing admission. She said that she was indeed the Alice Donovan referred to in the New York Times story on false identities.  In other words, she was confirming her existence by citing an article that claimed she didn’t exist. She said that after the NYT’s story broke, she “deleted my FB page ’cause I had received a lot of offensive messages.” (The valley girl colloquialism is a nice touch.) She also said she didn’t “want talk to anyone for security reasons.”

Now that’s certainly understandable. No one wants to be harangued by a mob of irate Facebookers. But was it accurate? Two things undermine her assertion. Facebook executives say they are the ones who deleted Donovan’s Facebook account, which happened before the Times story appeared. And Donovan didn’t delete her Twitter page at the same time, where she could easily have been targeted by enraged defenders of George Soros. In fact, she continued posting to it after the Times story appeared. It remains an active account as of this writing.

We immediately wrote back to Donovan. We told her we simply wanted to confirm her identity. We asked her to call us or send us a photo of a utility bill. It can’t be that hard to prove you exist. We also asked her if she had any possible explanation for why her piece on Syria was identical to the one written and published earlier that same day by Sophie Mangal. We never heard from her again.

***

On December 21, we finally talked to Luke Rudkowski, journalist and founder of WeAreChange, which published more than 20 of Donovan’s pieces from June 2016 to May 2017. Rudkowski told CounterPunch he was blindsided by the news that Alice Donavan was likely a fake persona and only learned of it after being contacted by the Washington Post via email.

“Looks like we were totally played,” said Rudowski, who said that at one point his organization attempted to pay Donovan for a few of her pieces but she would always dodge the issue. What aspiring young journalist wouldn’t like to be paid, especially by a site that’s already publishing her work?

“We’ve scrubbed our pages of any signs of her,” added Rudowski. “The whole thing is totally embarrassing.”

***

After weeks of probing, we learned much about Alice Donovan, but ended up knowing almost nothing about her. As an individual, she remained a cypher, an exemplar of what Keats called “negative capability.” Does she exist? Well, there was someone at the other end of the email address and it was a person, not a bot (bots would have used better grammar.) Other than that we still don’t know much for certain. Is “Alice Donovan” actually Alice Donovan? We couldn’t verify that she is or prove that she wasn’t and she chose to do neither. Is the freelance writer “Alice Donovan” a single individual? Probably not. Certainly not, if you consider the numerous instances of plagiarism. Is she a Russian troll? We still don’t know.

If Donovan proves to be a cyber troll of some kind, then the current crop of impersonators are not nearly as skilled as the polished moles in LeCarré’s novels. These people are flawed beings. They make mistakes. Which makes them more interesting in a way. They’re not quite sympathetic characters, but just imagine having to live as an online imposter pounding out innocuous stories once every few weeks, sending them out and hoping they get picked up, tweeted and retweeted, getting bored and lazy and ripping off the prose of other reporters as your deadline approaches, and then occasionally sending out the wrong file under the wrong email address to the wrong publishers. These trolls fuck up.

The one thing we know for sure is that Alice Donovan had recklessly stolen other writers’ work and pawned it off as her own, for whatever purpose. To that extent, at least, she is a fraud and that deception brought all her other writing into doubt, which is why we removed it from the CounterPunch website. But it must be admitted that her repeated screw-ups are terrible tradecraft for a troll, which may undermine the case against her as some kind of deep cover operative. If Donovan’s intent was to destroy “our democratic values” by committing crimes against journalism, she’ll need to swing a lot harder to surpass the damage done by Judith Miller.

None of this, however, is an exculpation for our own blunders. Somewhere along the line we blew it. We let a plagiarist and a possible troll onto CounterPunch. Were there warning signs that we missed? Sure. Should we have been alert to the awkward phrases in some of the articles on Syria that didn’t read like the original Donovan piece? No doubt. But recall that we had published more than 5,000 articles between the first and second Donovan stories. We should have picked up on the lifted passages in the “Escalation in Syria” story because there was a link that took us directly to the piece that was plagiarized. We should have become suspicious about Donovan after the New York Times story ran in September. Those are on us.

So why did we run five pieces by Alice Donovan? First, because they were interesting and timely. The short pieces on Syria, in particular, came at a moment when Trump was engaged in his first big military action and we were eager, perhaps too eager, to publish as many different perspectives as possible on his new, more aggressive policy. Second, we’ve always made a point of encouraging and publishing young writers from different backgrounds: activists, union organizers, students, veterans, prisoners, the homeless, even lawyers. The fact that Donovan professed to being a “beginner” wasn’t a deterrent. We were glad to add a young, female voice to our mix of contributors. Then we got burned. Our challenge going forward will be to keep CounterPunch as open as possible to a global network of writers from a wide range of political viewpoints without leaving the site vulnerable to trolls, pranksters, propagandists or government operatives, no matter what country they may be tied to.

If the FBI was so worried about the risks posed by Alice Donovan’s false persona, they could have tipped off some of the media outlets she was corresponding with. But in this case they refrained for nearly two years. Perhaps they concluded that Donovan was the hapless and ineffectual persona she appears to be. More likely, they wanted to continue tracking her. But they couldn’t do that without also snooping on American journalists and that represents an icy intrusion on the First Amendment. For a free press to function, journalists need to be free to communicate with whomever they want, without fear that their exchanges are being monitored by federal agencies. A free press needs to be free to make mistakes and learn from them. We did.

Alice Donovan, a Chronological Bibliography

Here is a catalogue of all “Alice Donovan” stories that we’ve been able to locate online. Many of the links are now dead.

Feb 25, 2016

Does America Need Such Friends?
Veterans Today

March 31, 2016

Pentagon [SIC] Secret Game in Syria
Veterans Today

April 26, 2016

Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow
Veterans Today

April 29, 2016

Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow
CounterPunch

June 9, 2016
#Blacks Against Hillary Initiative Joined by Hundreds of Black People Across America
We are Change

July 20, 2016
Syrian Nightmare
We Are Change
Veterans Today

July 20, 2016
Is Dallas Shooting the First Spark of Potential Powder Keg?
We Are Change
Veterans Today

August 8, 2016
Busted: HRC and Obama Sell Arms to ISIS
We Are Change

August 15, 2016
Russia to Destroy Terrorists in Aleppo During Navy Drills
We are Change

August 17, 2016
Cyberwarfare: Challenge of Tomorrow
MintPressNews

Sept. 14, 2016
Hacked: Former Sec. of State Colin Powell Slammed Hillary and Trump
We are Change

Sept. 15, 2016
Washington’s Terrorists Keep Violating Ceasefire
We are Change

Oct. 12, 2016
Bogus Assault on Mosul
Veterans Today

Oct. 14, 2016
Bogus Assault on Mosul
We are Change

Oct. 25, 2016

US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *
Veterans Today

Oct. 26, 2016
US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *
Global Research

Oct. 27, 2016
US Political Games in Montenegro And Proven Winning Approach by Đukanović *
Global Politics

Nov. 5, 2016

US Special Forces Join Fight for Mosul
We are Change

Nov. 9, 2016

US Special Forces Join Fight for Mosul
Ground Report

Nov. 18, 2016

Hezbollah Terrorists Spotted Using US Military Vehicles **
We are Change

Nov. 18, 2016
Obama Urges Anti-Trump Protesters Not to be Silent
We are Change

Nov. 21, 2016
Federal Judge: “Go to Another Country If You Don’t Like Trump”
We are Change

Dec. 14, 2016

Will Trump Change America’s Policy in Ukraine? ***
Ground Report

Jan. 5, 2017

US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib
We are Change

Jan. 5, 2017
7 Insane Government Conspiracies That Actually Happened
We are Change

Jan. 6, 2017

Video: US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib
Ground Report

Jan. 7, 2017

US Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Syria’s Idlib
Op-Ed News

Jan. 25, 2017

Trump to Ban Travel from 7 Countries, Including Iraq and Syria
We are Change

Jan 26, 2017

After Meeting with Assad, Tulsi Gabbard Calls on US to End Support for Terrorism
We are Change

March 15, 2017
Turkish Hacker Groups Hack Twitter and Provoke Feud with The Netherlands
We are Change

March 20, 2017
Trump Blames Dems for Creating “Fake News” in Fiery New Tweets
We are Change

April 7, 2017
Syrian Media: US Air Strike on Syria Kills Four Children
We are Change

April 9, 2017

Dramatic Escalation in Syria
We are Change
Restoring Liberty

April 10, 2017 ****

Escalation in Syria
CounterPunch
Activist Post

May 20, 2017

US-led Coalition Airstrike on Assad’s Troops Not Accidental *****
CounterPunch

May 24, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
We are Change
Veterans Today
Activist Post

May 25, 2017

US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
CounterPunch

May 26, 2017
US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
The Duran

May 29, 2017
US-Led Airstrikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Popular Resistance

October 13, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela: US Joint Operation with Colombia
Veterans Today

October 14, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela? US Joint Operation With Colombia
Global Research

Oct. 15, 2017

The US Works with Columbia [Sic] to Undermine Venezuela
The Duran

October 16, 2017

Civil War in Venezuela? US Joint Operation With Colombia
CounterPunch

Guerre civile au Venezuela : opération conjointe des États-Unis avec la Colombie [French]
Reseau International

Guerra Civil na Venezuela? Operação conjunta dos EUA com a Colômbia [Portuguese]
Naval Brasil

* Partially plagiarized from NATO’s Dangerous Game in the Balkans by Dragan Plavsic, Counterfire, February 6, 2016 and NATO Doesn’t Need  Montenegro’s Teeny-Tiny Military by Zachary Yost, The National Interest, June 28, 2016.

** Partially plagiarized from an RT story titled: Images of Hezbollah “Parading US Armored Vehicles” Emerge Online, Sparking Controversy, Nov. 16, 2016.

*** Partially plagiarized from It’s a pretty disturbing time for Ukraine: Trump’s Russia ties unnerve Kiev by Shaun Walker, The Guardian, Dec. 6, 2016.

**** Partially plagiarized from “Dramatic Escalation in Syria” by Sophia Mangal, Inside Syria Media Center.

***** Plagiarized verbatim from by Sophia Mangal, International Reporter, Inside Syria Media Center.